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Carlos Arguedas, Costa Rica  

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Carlos was the first banana worker I met, along with his colleague, Doris Calvo, the then women's secretary with SITRAP. They were visiting Scotland in 1998 on a speaker tour and I was asked to interpret for them. It was meeting them that made me become involved with this project. This interview was recorded in Siquirres May 2001 with Carlos Arguedas who is the Health, Safety and Environment Secretary with the SITRAP trade union.

Jan Nimmo

 
 
 
 

I had to go to jail at twelve years old. This is something which doesn't have anything to do with the problems in the banana sector right now. It happened because I had to steal to eat. I had to do this and it doesn't bother me at all to tell you this. Much later in life, when I was elected as a councillor - voted in by the workers - this came out in public. It was something that I had kept to only the people closest to me, but the other councillors were all over the municipality telling everyone! There I was denouncing a case of corruption by one of the representatives of the majority party. They got me and said "Who was I, what moral authority had I to be talking about stealing when I had a dark past of imprisonment for theft and which had nothing to do with the social struggle?" I asked to speak so that I could clarify - they didn't want me to talk about this. But I spoke about this for about an hour - my own version. (This is on the statute books)

When I was young I had sixteen brothers and sisters. My mother did what she could to cope with the poverty and eleven of us survived. My father and my older brothers left home to try and find a living. I still hadn't left home at that point. I stayed with my younger brothers and sisters and went to work at the age of 12. I had to leave school to go to work. I earned four colones a day and my little brother earned the same. One day we lost our wages when we were coming home from work- a week's wages which was 48 colones, which was to buy food for my brothers and sisters. My mum had six young kids who were starving hungry so when I told her she was really upset and cried. I said, "there's a pulpería (a corner shop that sells everything) which is open (a shop just like the one I have now!) - There won't be anyone there because there's a fiesta in the town. Let's go and steal some food so that we can give my brothers and sisters something to eat". So we went, but they caught me inside - when the police and the owner of the shop arrived I was inside and my brother was outside and I'd passed him some things - rice, beans, I can't remember now what else. All I wanted was to get some food. I got in through a hole. When my brother told me that the police were coming I said: "Go back to the house" and I stayed there. I ended up in prison, and they made me walk for eleven hours to get there. The next day they let me go because the policeman in charge realised that they'd made a mistake - I was an adolescent and it was illegal to lock me up.

One thing is for sure: there are good things and bad things that happen. I felt very ashamed and had to leave the area to look for work to make a living. That's how I ended up on the banana plantations.

As a young man of twenty I lived in the province of Arajuela. I decided to leave for the banana plantations of Valle de Estrella. I travelled round the whole country looking for new horizons that would enable me to improve my economic and social situation. In 1969 I went to work on a plantation owned by Dole, more precisely Plantation 19, in Valle de Estrella where there were 21 Dole plantations which still exist today. I got a job there and that's where I had my first contact with banana workers. It was there, just six months after starting, that I took part in one of the fiercest industrial conflicts. This was my initiation into political and trade union life. For 3 years or more, I participated in the workers' movement to improve wages in all banana plantations. From that moment I stood out a little and the workers named me as a representative of the strike campaign committee. I was very active. You could say that ever since then, 31 years ago, I have been active in the trade union movement in defence of banana workers.

 

Throughout this long period, during which I've acquired my grey hairs, I have experienced many wonderful things, such as sharing experiences with my fellow workers; but there have also been many hard times too. These are burdens that you carry around in your head and heart. I have some of the roughest times with other workers - sharing their needs, the social struggle, and even sharing prison and going underground with them. I have lived through their worst experiences with them in the struggle for better economic and social conditions.

I remember so well the first action I took part in as a young man of only twenty years old, although I have taken part in many more since then. Because of my active participation in this campaign, I was nominated onto the executive committee of what was then an important trade union - UTRAL, the Limón Agricultural Workers' Union, which operated in the Valle de Estrella plantations and in the rest of the Limón Province. That's how I got involved in other activities and conflicts similar to what we're experiencing now in the banana plantations. To have a union meeting you had to do it clandestinely, because being a trade unionist was a crime. Today the persecution is similar. The companies saw it as something terrible that a worker should be involved in the trade union movement or take strike action. It was really difficult, but workers were nonetheless determined to establish trade unions.

We were determined to resolve the enormous problems facing us. At the time, we were only earning 16 colones . But we did manage to make some progress though. We had negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with Dole, giving workers some guarantees concerning wages, health care, holidays and so on.

So how did I end up here? Well, here in Siquirres there was a crisis in the trade union leadership. There was already a strong union there in Estrella, so it was decided that I should move to Siquirres to work with the trade union SITRAP (Agricultural Plantation Workers' Union). This is how I came to settle here. In the first years after moving me here our struggle was really tough.
Before we continue I want to tell you this….Whilst I was working on the banana plantation I suffered what you could call one of the worst misfortunes a banana worker can suffer. I was one of those who applied the infamous chemical 'Nemagón' or DCBP . This product affected the health of tens of thousands of workers in Central America. Unfortunately I was one of those affected, or quemados , as we would say here. This happened before I moved here to work with SITRAP. We didn't know what problems we had internally - many workers didn't realise. It was after 12 years of my being here in Siquirres that we started to detect some of the ailments amongst those of us who applied this poison. That was the situation when the news broke that workers in the DCBP manufacturing industry in the United States had been affected and compensated by the company who manufactured this pesticide.
I carried on working here in the trade union. I carried on the fight for justice for the thousands of workers who, just like me, had ended up affected by agrochemicals. We put forward claims in the US and at the same time continued organising the trade union.

I became very active here, and not just with the banana workers' struggle. At that time the movement was suffering persecution and all the other social problems caused by Chiquita, Dole and Del Monte. Then there was the struggle for justice for workers poisoned by the agrochemicals in Valle de Estrella, which had spread to all banana plantations. It wasn't just Dole that used this chemical, all of them were involved.

 

I also became very active in wider community issues in and around Siquirres. It was a small municipality then. There was a population of 20,000. Now there's a population of between 70,000 and 80,000 inhabitants - in other words it's tripled in size. In spite of the likelihood of persecution, all the right conditions for the trade union struggle were right. I got involved in another very important problem: the issue of unjust land distribution here in the municipality. I took part in the occupation of lots of land which had been abandoned by the banana companies - some belonging to Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte or other land owners who were also banana producers.

We had to organise the campesinos and the banana workers who didn't have homes, in order to occupy land where there were no titles or land not on the property register. This was land not documented as belonging to anybody, but the companies had appropriated it as though they were the owners. My actions of course resulted in me being persecuted and going to prison 22 times. It was also submitted to torture at the hands of the authorities.

You have to remember that the government of this country at that time boasted about defending private property, but in justifying this, the government defended property which wasn't private. All a company had to do was put up a sign up on a 1000 hectare area of land, for example saying Del Monte. Even though it wasn't their property, all they had to do was put a fence around it and bring in a guard or two, or, in some cases, a lot of guards to protect it as though it belonged to them. For us this was both illogical and unjust as there were so many homeless workers, so many unemployed banana workers who were suffering. For us the most sensible thing was to make use of this land by planting what we eat here. The land around Siquirres is really good for agriculture. For instance we grow: cassava, rice, beans, maize, tequisque , yampí …. All products which form the basic diet of people in rural Costa Rica. So this is how we came to occupy Del Monte land, specifically in La Virginia, Islona, Bambusál and other farms called La Ranchería and Maryland. Then we occupied lands in what is known as El Porvenir, La Perla, La Perlita, Monte Verde, Palmiras, Indianas etc. Practically all the undocumented land that the banana companies had appropriated was taken over.

I repeat, of course, that the repression which followed - against me and other leaders - was extreme. It reached the point where, whenever one of these occupations took place, the first thing the police did would be to order my detention and that of the other leaders who were in the area. It's maybe because of this that I have been in prison so often - 22 times. Whenever there was a social conflict here in Siquirres or strike action on one of the plantations, the first thing they did was be to order the detention of leaders like me. This meant working by night, and hiding yourself in the mountains by day. Under cover of darkness we'd come down, help the workers meet one another and organise what we needed for the strike to be successful. Of course, on many occasions, we had to sacrifice our own personal security. We were always detained when we came out to meet with the workers, and always ended up in prison one way or another.

But we achieved many things. We negotiated 16 collective bargaining agreements with 16 companies here in the municipality of Siquirres - including one overall agreement with Del Monte covering at least 8 plantations. We had an agreement with Dole which covered many plantations and others with independent companies. We negotiated agreements covering wages, holidays, Christmas bonuses, medical care, the respect for the dignity of the worker, and respect for the freedom of association. These collective agreements were very valuable. It is thanks to them that we still a few remaining guarantees today, although they're now managed by the solidarismo associations. These were gains that we made at that time.

It's important to emphasise that during those days of trade union conflict, many people died. Maybe I'm here telling these stories because I can - because other compañeros aren't here today. You have to remember that right here in this province they killed many compañeros; many were injured in the strike movement, and many were detained during this struggle. But, in spite of all that, we did manage to establish the trade union and a relationship between workers and management in the banana companies.

Then the trade union leadership decided to move me to the Panamanian border, where, you might say, I lived through the worst experience of my life. Workers at a Chiquita plantation were about to mount an all-out strike and break off negotiations after four years during which the company had failed to reach any agreement on wages. The union managed to convince the workers' that is was not the best time to strike, but instead to wait a little because we were at a critical stage in the negotiations.

Chiquita intended to abandon Costa Rica without fulfilling responsibilities that they had with the government. We wanted to take advantage of this during the strike. But the majority of workers decided to respond by striking. They were going to experience very grave consequences if they did so, but the workers threatened that they would go on strike with or without the trade union. This would have been very risky. We had to accept their decision to strike and went on strike. This strike lasted three and half months. It cost us the imprisonment of 300 trade unionists, the death of one compañero at the hands of the police, and many more ended up wounded, injured by the bullets. I, along with many other compañeros, ended up in prison. On this occasion they tortured me and in a way the things they did to me have remained imprinted in my mind and, of course, it damaged me psychologically. They kept me in solitary confinement in a cell for a week. The used to wake me in the small hours, they blindfolded me, saying that they would kill me if I didn't give them information about the other compañeros who were taking part in the strike. Of course, I never gave them any information. In the end I decided to challenge them to just go ahead and kill me once and for all as by that time it didn't really matter to me. I felt like I wanted to die… If one day I have to die, then I would like to die for a just cause.

 

The result was that they kept me imprisoned but the death threats stopped. But then they did some thing that traumatised me. They brought a man who had died in an accident and they put the body in the cell with me for the night. In this country we don't like the idea of being with someone who's died in this way. I felt really terrible and the truth is that I felt traumatised. I had to leave the trade union movement for a short while. I felt as though I couldn't talk to anyone about what happened. I felt isolated from others and from the social struggle. Of course, this was only for a very short time. This was one of the worst things that happened to me. Of course I was put in prison more times in that area. After these experiences, the union decided to move me back to Siquirres and I have been living here ever since.

I started working with SITRAP again. I carried on the fight for the workers affected by DCBP. We managed to get some compensation. It was the fist time in eight years that workers had been compensated. We managed to get a payment of $7460 for 525 workers in Limón and I was one of those who benefited from this. It meant that I could pay for my house, and I have a small business that helps me survive. I can carry on helping the trade union without them having to pay me a wage. I have the chance to do something that very few other compañeros can do because they have to have a job. This allows me to both survive and to help the trade union.

Part of my modest life, in recent years, has been to meet a German woman, a friend of the trade union movement, who decided to do some work here in Siquirres with the union. It fell to me to look after her and we ended up living together. We married and I can say unequivocally that it is the best thing that has ever happened in my life, because not only has this allowed me, after such along time of being alone, of having a compañera, but also being able to start a small joint venture that allows us to guarantee our future. No one wants to end up old, having to beg or anything like that, right? I've been enjoying this marriage for the last 7 years. With her help I have been able to continue helping the trade union we've been able to work together. In spite of all the problems I've had in my life, I'm happy.

I feel satisfied that I still do some work for the trade union. It's been a long time since I've been persecuted - at least with the threat of prison. I don't think it's a problem though to say that I would still go to prison for a crime of which I'm not ashamed. I tell the whole world about my times in prison because I don't feel in the slightest bit ashamed of this. I feel proud that it's been for a just cause, and that I have the affection of the workers, and that I've got the respect of the population. So I believe that I have every reason to feel happy. I've said it and I'll say it again

I'm not saying that it's the only thing that's important, but you should be incorruptible. The things that I have experienced in my life have allowed me, firstly, to feel more love for this cause; secondly, I have learned that you should never put your conscience up for sale. My conscience is mine - it doesn't have a price. You can't put it on sale, you can't buy it…. and, please! - to those from some of the companies who have said to me that I should take a break, put this life of agitating behind me and get a job with a banana company - I could have some perks like a good car, a nice house, a bit of money etc - my reply is that there is no sign outside my house saying that my conscience is for sale!

My conscience belongs to me and I'm taking it with me to the grave.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About SITRAP

From the 1960s to the end of the 1970s and early 80s our union, SITRAP, maintained its strength. We had 16 collective agreements with 16 different companies in this region. The trade union movement in general strengthened throughout the country. As a consequence of this, some so-called "thinkers" or "intellectuals" decided that the unions had to be killed off. That's how the current solidarismo movement was born in this country. It is promoted by the Social School of John XXIII (Escuela Social de Juan XXIII) which, unfortunately, was given the name of a Pope. However, we don't think it's an appropriate name given what it has done in Costa Rica. There was a witch-hunt against the trade union movement and SITRAP was one of unions which was severely affected. It effectively consisted of sacking our members. We were, at that time, present in 25 plantations, with 16 collective agreements. We had a core of more than 550 trained people who were leading the union's activities within each plantation. They were the first victims. The companies supported by the Escuela Social Juan XXIII, started to dismiss these workers and - just as bad from our point of view - replacing them with workers who were obliged to affiliate to solidarismo. From then on, the union experienced a difficult period where we almost went down to zero membership affiliates - nobody paying subs - or only clandestine affiliates who couldn't appear on the payroll and therefore couldn't be counted. SITRAP experienced great difficulties in being able to react and difficulties in financing ourselves.

Solidarismo strengthened during the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. This meant that we had to work at international as well as national level, because in Costa Rica our voices fell on deaf ears, ignored by the authorities. The press didn't listen to the issues raised by the union so that's how we started to make international contacts which allowed us to condemn the situation at international level. Then we fought so that there would be respect for trade unions. You have to remember that in this country you have to be aware of the important clauses in the Constitution which guarantee trade union freedom. These are taken directly from the ILO conventions and should be implemented. You also have to remember that the Labour Code clearly establishes the right of workers to belong to a trade union. In spite of this, the government and the authorities have ignored all these issues and the companies have done exactly as they pleased in this country.

In recent years, it's been a real struggle to get workers to join us, which has brought us difficult times. We've had to develop strategies not only here, but outside the country. We have been forced to strongly denounce the situation.

Simultaneously, we've been obliged to denounce the environmental impact of banana monoculture which has been imposed in a vulnerable area like this. The Atlantic region is a coastal area on the Caribbean Sea and the water from the banana plantations has no where else to go, so pollutes the marine wealth which we have here in the Caribbean - such as the Carey, Baula and Lora turtles, our coral reefs in Cahuita, the fish stocks…. The majority of the population of the Atlantic coast live from fishing so the expansion of banana production has caused a great deal of damage to this ecologically vulnerable area. In recent years we've been condemning these two issues which affect us in the union. This is a campaign which we maintain to the present day.

Given that what the companies do is play games, as we would say here - take part in a pantomime, or theatre or something like that - pretending that they are doing one thing when in fact they are doing another. We've had to make it known at government and international level that the banana companies engage in "double speak" when it comes to social conditions and the environment.

The struggle continues. The most important thing is that we've managed to get the companies to respect some workers. We have been able to create small "beach-head" groups, who can receive training and bring in new members where they work. They can initiate work which they can extend to other plantations.

But recently, perhaps most interestingly, is the pact that we've made with a few national producers, who have always been dependent on the trans-national companies. We've made them realise that for us the key issues are the workers and their lives, our land, the environment, because the day that the trans-nationals leave our country we'll be the ones left living here with what they've left us: destruction, the disfigurement of human beings, the destruction of our environment. One of trade union successes recently has been that some national banana producers have understood this, such as at Oro Verde, Carolina and Maryland plantations. They are willing to work with us, hand in hand, to find an independent market and at the same time bettering the social, economic and environmental conditions in which the workers produce bananas. This is really important for us to be able to benefit from what you could say is a trend in Europe, where people are interested in buying "ethical" bananas. I say thanks to all the work being done in Europe just now by consumer groups looking for ethically produced bananas, produced under good social conditions which don't damage the environment. In this sense, our struggle continues.

The most recent agreement that we have signed is with Chiquita, at national and Latin American level which regulates some aspects of the work. We think that from here on in we can move onto a new era for the trade union movement in the banana industry. If the companies, in this case Chiquita, respect the agreement we've signed, and other companies understand that they can't carry on producing bananas at the cost of the workers, at the cost of their loss of health - including the deaths of workers - at the cost of the environment, the air, the water and our seas - then we could surely reach a new working relationship between companies and trade unionists whereby we are able to live together in peace.

Our struggle is not about throwing any of the banana companies out of the country. Not at all; it's about them being able to produce this delicious dessert which consumers eat in Europe - and throughout the world - in humane conditions and in harmony with the environment without destroying what resources we have to survive.

Costa Rica is a very small country, bathed by two beautiful seas full of riches. Whatever damage is done to this strip of land which we call Central America could completely destroy our seas not just here, but internationally. Whatever damage we cause to human beings are the consequences which we will have created for future generations. It's up to us to fulfil our responsibilities and not to leave everything behind, in ruins, for future generations. We have to fight, with our lives, if necessary so that future generations are able to live with dignity, that they have a healthier environment and that they have a life with better living conditions so that they can raise their children in a beautiful country, just like the one we dream about having. Costa Rica is a hugely rich country, incredibly beautiful, which we love and appreciate, but because we love the country so much we're willing do whatever it takes to look after it, as much for its inhabitants as for the environment in which they live.

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Interview and Translation: Jan Nimmo

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Woodcut by Jan Nimmo: Carlos Arguedas Costa Rica